By Emilia Sherifova Apr 14, 2021

Below, Emilia Sherifova – KKR’s Chief Information and Innovation Officer – discusses her priorities in her role, how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the adoption of new technologies across industries, and what qualities she feels are needed to be a successful Chief Information Officer (CIO) today.

You joined KKR in 2019 with a wealth of experience across both established financial services firms and start-ups. What surprised you about KKR after you joined and what are your priorities?

What surprised me is, despite how influential KKR is globally, the organization is comparatively small and flat with a very entrepreneurial and agile team. This is reminiscent of the startups where I worked. I realize now this approach is deliberate – it’s a part of the culture the firm’s founders established to encourage continued innovation to enhance the way we work and the value we bring to our clients.

Another thing that surprised me was the tremendous opportunity to bring digitization and a data-driven mindset to this industry. There's a really exciting opportunity at KKR to put us at the forefront of our industry by investing in technology, building world-class engineering capabilities, and adding more digital components to enhance almost every aspect of what we do. This is a great complement to our strong culture as a firm. I often say that the addition of digitization can make someone "superhuman" – technology can automate low value processes and enable everyone across the firm to focus even more on value-add work streams and projects. It takes everything, and everyone, to the next level and that is an exciting opportunity for me and my team.

The last 12 months with the pandemic have been tumultuous for all of us, and especially for CIOs. What do you feel are some of the key trends out of this “new normal”?

The pandemic is no doubt an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It is also acting as a catalyst for change on an unprecedented scale: businesses are facing a once-in-a-generation shift en-masse among their consumers, employees, and society-at-large to increasingly digital personal and professional lives.

At the start of the pandemic, the CIO’s role was focused on enabling the transition of office-based businesses to ones that could operate effectively while being fully remote. Businesses quickly adopted low-code technology, video calls, and cloud technology which gave way to the creation of more efficient work-from-home models than anyone could have predicted before COVID-19. There is now widespread adoption of some of the practices used solely in the past by technology teams or digitally native organizations – hybrid working with a distributed workforce being just one example.

As the pandemic continued, it demonstrated that technical enablement, strong engineering teams, and viable digital infrastructure are absolutely key – not only staying competitive, but also for staying in business. The perception of CIOs has shifted as a result and they are now seen as commercial thought leaders and equal partners in creating and driving business strategy.

What qualities does a successful CIO need?

As the world continues to adopt an increasingly digital lifestyle, every organization must evolve to have a clear understanding of what they need to do to transform themselves into digitally-enabled businesses. That means businesses can’t have a CIO who just “talks the talk” of technology. CIOs must understand technology and truly “walk the walk” with their teams. They have to lead by example and engage deeply – not only on a strategic level, but also with people, operations, and ultimately to build a strong digital culture within the entire enterprise.

To affect the kind of change required to move more traditional businesses into technology centric ones, CIOs need to be transformational and servant leaders. They have to engage with the whole organization like never before, articulating a bold vision while also diving deep to understand what each team needs to get to the next level. CIOs need to lead the way in delivering a technology strategy tailored to the applicable business by rolling up their sleeves to solve problems and seize opportunities, working side by side with their teams.

CIOs have to be empathetic to the employees within their organization, their end users, to be able to deliver intuitive, frictionless experiences. They also have to be skilled at attracting world-class, digitally-savvy talent in a very competitive market where expertise is highly sought after. Finally, being a CIO requires candid leadership and the ability to engage and bring people along with them while getting things done. Technology is difficult. For those who aren’t tech experts, CIOs not only need to be able to translate their strategies to layman's terms to get buy-in, but they also need to be clear about what the challenges might be along the way.

What technology are you most excited about right now?

I am still very excited about cloud technology. It's been around for some time, but it continues to evolve and companies are maturing in their understanding of the optimal uses of it. Cloud has been tremendous in allowing for business continuity during the global pandemic and it has the potential to enable companies to focus on innovation and value-add, while removing all the infrastructure and operational friction.